Shorter Mike and Mike: No, We Don’t Want Immunity Contingent on Actually Finishing the IG Report

I think I’ve given as much consideration to what it would take to have a meaningful study of what the Administration did with its illegal wiretapping program as anyone (though also see this piece on immunity from Brian Beutler, one of the last pieces he did before he got shot last week). And I gotta say–the fact that DNI Mike McConnell and AG Michael Mukasey claim they’d advise Bush to veto the bill if it included Jeff Bingaman’s amendment–holding off on giving the telecoms immunity until after the IG study mandated by the bill was completed–makes me rather suspicious that Bush intends to spike the IG investigation (h/t Spencer).

As we have previously noted, any FISA modernization bill must contain effective legal protections for those companies sued because they are believed to have helped the Government prevent terrorist attacks in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.


H.R. 6304 contains such protection, but the amendment would reportedly foreclose an electronic communication service provider from receiving retroactive [immunity] until 90 days after the Inspectors General of various departments, as required by section 301 of H.R. 6304, complete a comprehensive review of, and submit a final report on, communications intelligence activities authorized by the President between September 11, 2001, and January 17, 2007. The final report is not due for a year after the enactment of the bill. Any amendment that would delay implementation of [immunity] in this manner is unacceptable. Providing prompt liability protection is critical to the national security. Accordingly, we, as well as the President’s other advisors, will recommend that the President veto any bill that includes such an amendment.

Now, I’d be charitable and buy Mike amd Mike’s claim that they’re just worried about a delay. Except that they make this completely cynical bid to suggest that the SSCI’s review of the program was adequate to expose what really happened with this program.

Deferring a final decision on retroactive [immunity] for 15 months while the Inspectors General complete the review required by H.R. 6304 is also unnecessary. The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted an extensive study of the issue, which included the review of the relevant classified documents, numerous hearings, and testimony. Read more

I Don’t Think “Accountability” Means What Obama Thinks It Does

Obama’s statement on FISA:

I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to those of you who oppose my decision to support the FISA compromise.

This was not an easy call for me. I know that the FISA bill that passed the House is far from perfect. I wouldn’t have drafted the legislation like this, and it does not resolve all of the concerns that we have about President Bush’s abuse of executive power. It grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that may have violated the law by cooperating with the Bush Administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping. This potentially weakens the deterrent effect of the law and removes an important tool for the American people to demand accountability for past abuses. That’s why I support striking Title II from the bill, and will work with Chris Dodd, Jeff Bingaman and others in an effort to remove this provision in the Senate.

But I also believe that the compromise bill is far better than the Protect America Act that I voted against last year. The exclusivity provision makes it clear to any President or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court. In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I’ve said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people. This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility

The Inspectors General report also provides a real mechanism for accountability and should not be discounted. It will allow a close look at past misconduct without hurdles that would exist in federal court because of classification issues. The recent investigation uncovering the illegal politicization of Justice Department hiring sets a strong example of the accountability that can come from a tough and thorough IG report.

The ability to monitor and track individuals who want to attack the United States is a vital counter-terrorism tool, and I’m persuaded that it is necessary to keep the American people safe — particularly since certain electronic surveillance orders will begin to expire later this summer. Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I’ve chosen to support the current compromise. Read more

Dean and Bush and Pardons

John Dean’s piece on FISA reads with all the angst of someone who–after a number of people have demonstrated his error–is hoping to persuade Barack Obama to get him out of the hole he created for himself. "Please, Obama," Dean seems to be saying, "hold Bush accountable so I don’t have to admit immunity really is immunity."

One gaping problem with Dean’s argument is the absence of any discussion of statutes of limitation. Even if Obama did what Dean wanted–and announced he would direct his AG to immediately review the warrantless wiretap program–the Republicans in the Senate could just filibuster approval of Obama’s AG until, say, April 26, 2009 (five years and 45 days after the authorization signed by Alberto Gonzales on March 11), and the statute of limitations on the known crimes would expire.

But the proposition I find really ridiculous is Dean’s contention that Bush isn’t going to issue blanket pardons of all the law-breakers in his Administration.

Given the downside, it is not clear whether Bush would issue a pardon in this context.

If it were issued by Bush, however, a blanket pardon to his “national security” miscreants would require acceptance by them of the fact that they had broken the law, and thus an admission of guilt. Were Bush to issue such a remarkable pardon, it would, of course, cement his historical stature as several notches below even that of Richard Nixon, who refused to pardon those who (many “for national security reasons”) engaged in the so-called Watergate abuses of presidential power on his behalf. Not many presidents want to be viewed by history as worse than Nixon. And a blanket pardon would be an admission by Bush that his war on terror has been a lawless undertaking, operating beyond the bounds of the Constitution and statutes that check the powers of the president and the executive branch. It would be an admission by Bush, too, of his own criminal culpability (which is why Nixon refused to grant his aides a pardon.)

Bush is very politically savvy. He knows that a blanket pardon, or even the prospect of it, could give Obama and the Democratic Party a wonderful issue during the coming months of the general election. Most Americans are deeply concerned about Bush/Cheney’s conduct of foreign affairs and national security, which ignores American laws and treaty obligations. Read more

The al-Haramain Decision

Due to some doozy global warming storms last night, we had intermittent power, so I’m just now getting to the Vaughn Walker decision in the al Haramain case, in which he dismisses the suit but invites the plaintiffs to submit unclassified evidence in support of their case. So there’s already a range of smart commentary on the decision. The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that Walkers ruling bodes well for their own case–which relies on the AT&T documents liberated by Mark Klein, and not classified evidence. Wired’s David Kravets notes that, coming as it does two business days before Congress will grant the telecoms immunity, the ruling has little meaning for EFF. McJoan basically makes the same argument–Congress is in the process of taking an unwieldy bad law and making it worse.

With regards the events of the next week, I sort of agree that this ruling will have little effect. There’s nothing in Walker’s ruling that will, by itself, persuade Barack Obama to take a stand on this legislation (he’s due to make an announcement about his stance on the legislation, but I don’t think this will change it one way or another). And I agree with Kravets–once Congress does pass its immunity, this ruling will be meaningless for those suing the telecoms (though perhaps it’ll make the likely suits that the immunity itself is illegal more interesting).

State Secrets Is Not Absolute

But the decision is interesting for two other reasons. First, Walker makes a strong case that the government’s ability to invoke state secrets is not absolute. Walker cites one of David Addington’s favorite cases, Navy v. Egan, to show that even that case envisions the possibility of Congress placing limits on the President’s ability to control national security information.

But Egan also discussed the other side of the coin, stating that “unless Congress specifically has provided otherwise, courts traditionally have been reluctant to intrude upon the authority of the Executive in military and national security affairs.” Id at 530 (emphasis added). Egan recognizes that the authority to protect national security information is neither exclusive nor absolute in the executive branch. When Congress acts to contravene the president’s authority, federal courts must give effect to what Congress has required. Egan’s formulation is, therefore, a specific application of Justice Jackson’s more general statement in Youngstown Sheet & Tube. [my emphasis]

Read more

I Don’t Think “FISA” and “Expire” Mean What Obama Thinks They Do

There’s a really disturbing line in this article on backlash against Obama for his FISA stance (say "hi" to Jane, Glenn, and Markos as you read).

Greg Craig, a Washington lawyer who advises the Obama campaign, said Tuesday in an interview that Mr. Obama had decided to support the compromise FISA legislation only after concluding it was the best deal possible.

“This was a deliberative process, and not something that was shooting from the hip,” Mr. Craig said. “Obviously, there was an element of what’s possible here. But he concluded that with FISA expiring, that it was better to get a compromise than letting the law expire.” [my emphasis]

Either Greg Craig is not the guy the Obama campaign should have discussing–much less advising him on–these issues, or Craig is simply repeating Obama’s profoundly erroneous logic.

But in either case, FISA is not expiring anytime soon. Last I checked, FISA’s been on the books for 30 years, and I have every expectation it will remain on the books for the next 30 years, regardless of how Obama votes on July 8.

Either Craig or Obama is making the common–but ignorant–mistake of conflating the Protect America Act with FISA. The former does expire in early August. The latter does not.

I might be accused of pedantry by maintaining this distinction. But its useful to maintain the distinction because it focuses on the differences between FISA and PAA. FISA provides a way for the government to wiretap individuals legally, while providing real protections for American citizens. Whereas PAA provides the government the ability to get basket warrants based on the say so of the Attorney General, dramatically eroding the protections for American citizens.

When someone erroneously claims that FISA is going to expire shortly, it’s a good bet that that person is thinking about retaining the basket warrant provisions of the PAA and not–as the spin suggests–simply "modernizing" FISA so the government can wiretap foreigners via telecom circuits in the United States. 

It’d be useful if someone asked the Obama campaign which of these authorities Obama is really intent on maintaining.  

The Obama & Olbermann Master Plan For Criminal FISA Prosecutions

Okay, the words "Master Plan" in the title are a joke. So is the idea of criminal prosecutions, by a future Obama Administration, for Bush era FISA violations that has been hawked, to the point of near belligerence, by Keith Olbermann both on his show and in a running flame war with Glen Greenwald. The instant article will attempt to relate some of the glaring reasons, from a practical criminal justice perspective, that the Obama/Olbermann master plan is naive, almost to the point of being comical. Comical that is if we were not literally discussing the life and spirit of the Fourth Amendment and the health and well being of the Constitutional rule of law in this country.

This is the exchange between Olbermann and Dean from which Olbermann appears to have ginned up his Obama genius master plan narrative:

DEAN: Well, I spent a lot of time reading that bill today, and it‘s a very poorly-drafted bill. One of the things that is not clear is whether it‘s not possible later to go after the telecoms for criminal liability. And that something that Obama has said during this campaign he would do, unlike prior presidents who come in and really give their predecessor a pass, he said, “I won‘t do that.” And that might be why he‘s just sitting back saying, “Well, I‘m going to let this go through. But that doesn‘t mean I‘m going to give the telecoms a pass.” I would love it if he gets on the Senate floor and says, “I‘m keeping that option opened.”

OLBERMANN: In other words, let the private suits drop and get somebody in there who‘ll actually use the laws that still exist to prosecute and make the actual statement and maybe throw a few people in jail.

DEAN: Exactly. And it looks to me, as I read this bill and talk to a number of people in Washington familiar with the bill, some who are involved in the negotiations, and they say, “You know – we just didn‘t think about this issue.”

Notwithstanding Olbermann’s fiery preacher in a pulpit exhortations, it should be noted that John Dean himself has walked his statement back from Olbermann’s claims since his original offhand quote:

But even if the bill is unclear there is no question the Bush Administration is not going to do anything to the telecoms, Read more

Confirmed: Final FISA Votes on July 8

As I understand it, Dodd and Feingold have signed off on a unanimous consent agreement to hold debate on three amendments (one of them immunity) on July 8, and then hold the vote then.

Here’s Feingold’s short statement on the delay.

I’m pleased we were able to delay a vote on FISA until after the July 4th holiday instead of having it jammed through. I hope that over the July 4th holiday, Senators will take a closer look at this deeply flawed legislation and understand how it threatens the civil liberties of the American people. It is possible to defend this country from terrorists while also protecting the rights and freedoms that define our nation.

And here’s Dodd’s statement on it.

I’m pleased that consideration of the FISA Amendments Act has been delayed until after the 4th of July recess. I urge my colleagues to take this time to listen to their constituents and consider the dangerous precedent that would be set by granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that may have engaged in President Bush’s illegal wiretapping program.

When and if FISA does come back to the Senate floor, I will offer my amendment to strip the retroactive immunity provision out of the bill. I implore my colleagues to support the rule of law and join me in voting against retroactive immunity.

So we’ve got 12 days to convince our Senators to stop channeling the barnacle and protect our Constitution.

Update: Here’s what’s going to happen on the 8th.

This evening Senator Reid filed cloture on H.R. 6304. Under the agreement at a time to be determined on Tuesday, July 8, the Senate will proceed to Calendar #827, H.R. 6304, FISA. The following amendments are the only amendments in order:

Dodd-Feingold-Leahy amendment to strike immunity;

Specter amendment which is relevant; (60-vote threshold); and

Bingaman amendment re: staying court cases against telecom companies (60-vote threshold).

Debate on the amendments is limited to the times listed below with the time equally divided and controlled:

Dodd- 2 hours, with Senator Leahy controlling 10 minutes;

Specter- 2 hours; and

Bingaman- 60 minutes.

Upon the use or yielding back of time, the Senate will proceed to vote on the amendments.

Prior to the cloture vote, there will be up to 60 minutes for debate equally divided and controlled between the Leaders or their designees, with Senator Leahy controlling 10 minutes. Senator Feingold will control an additional 30 minutes and Senator Read more

Immunity Provision Invites Phone Companies to Cooperate with Illegal Government Programs

Senator Feingold made an important argument in the Senate today. He explains how the FISA immunity provision invites telecoms to cooperate with illegal government programs.

For starters, current law already provides immunity from lawsuits for companies that cooperate with the government’s request for assistance, as long as they receive either a court order or a certification from the Attorney General that no court order is needed and the request meets all statutory requirements. But if requests are not properly documented, FISA instructs the telephone companies to refuse the government’s request, and subjects them to liability if they instead decide to cooperate. This framework, which has been in place for 30 years, protects companies that act at the request of the government while also protecting the privacy of Americans’ communications.

Some supporters of retroactively expanding this already existing immunity provision argue that the telephone companies should not be penalized if they relied on a high-level government assurance that the requested assistance was lawful. Mr. President, as superficially appealing as that argument may sound, it utterly ignores the history of FISA.

Telephone companies have a long history of receiving requests for assistance from the government. That’s because telephone companies have access to a wealth of private information about Americans – information that can be a very useful tool for law enforcement. But that very same access to private communications means that telephone companies are in a unique position of responsibility and public trust. And yet, before FISA, there were basically no rules to help the phone companies resolve the tension between the government’s requests for assistance in foreign intelligence investigations and the companies’ responsibilities to their customers.

This legal vacuum resulted in serious governmental abuse and overreaching. The abuses that took place are well documented and quite shocking. With the willing cooperation of the telephone companies, the FBI conducted surveillance of peaceful anti-war protesters, journalists, steel company executives – and even Martin Luther King Jr.

Congress decided to take action. Based on the history of, and potential for, government abuses, Congress decided that it was not appropriate for telephone companies to simply assume that any government request for assistance to conduct electronic surveillance was legal. Let me repeat that: a primary purpose of FISA was to make clear, once and for all, that the telephone companies should not blindly cooperate with government requests for assistance.

Read more

About Reid’s Potential Delay

Folks are seeing a glimmer of hope in the FISA battle based on Harry Reid’s suggestion that we might not get FISA done before the July 4 recess.

Before I look closely at what Reid said, let me lay out a few points:

  • Unless something remarkable happens, FISA will eventually pass the Senate with about a 72-25 margin. The bad SSCI bill passed in February with a 68-29 margin, and Steny’s capitulation was tailor-made to pick up the votes of people like DiFi and Amy Klobuchar–not to mention Obama. So there’s absolutely no reason to think a filibuster would be successful or to think that the bill won’t pass.
  • The Senate is close to passing a Housing bill that–though imperfect–would do some concrete things to help Americans stay in their homes and help communities devastated by foreclosures. If Bush signs it. If Bush doesn’t, then the Republicans will have their refusal to do something about the foreclosure crisis to contend with this fall, along with everything else they’re dealing with.
  • The Senate is close to passing the equally imperfect funding supplemental which includes Webb’s GI bill and an extension to unemployment benefits.

As you look at Reid’s comments, remember that Reid is dealing with all three of these playing pieces, not just the one we’re most focused on, FISA. And to the average American, the other two pieces are way more important than the FISA piece. As well-versed as I’ve become in FISA, frankly, I can’t imagine telling my neighbors facing foreclosure that defeating immunity is more important than them keeping their house.

I’m just making an outtamyarse guess, but I’m guessing that Reid’s delay comment last night may be tailored to get action on the housing bill, by holding the two things the Administration wants–FISA and the supplemental–hostage until a hold-out Republican and Bush agree to the housing compromise.

Reid starts by clearly pressuring one Senator on the housing bill–basically saying that if this one Senator doesn’t flip, then the Senate will stay through the weekend and get some housing bill passed.

I know of only one holdup on our being able to complete the housing legislation. If we can’t get that Senator to sign off on this, then we only have one alternative and that is we’ll file cloture tomorrow on another arm of this housing legislation. We will have cloture on that two legislative days later and then we still have one more to do. Now, that would mean we would have to be here over the weekend. Read more

Trading our Constitution Away Based on the Word of Alberto Gonzales

Here’s what Jim Comey had to say about the illegality of the warrantless wiretap program:

SPECTER: OK. So what the administration, executive branch of the president, did was not illegal.

COMEY: I’m not saying — again, that’s why I kept avoiding using that term. I had not reached a conclusion that it was.

The only conclusion I reached is that I could not, after a whole lot of hard work, find an adequate legal basis for the program.


Well, now I understand why you didn’t say it was illegal. What I don’t understand is why you now won’t say it was legal.

COMEY: Well, I suppose there’s an argument — as I said, I’m not a presidential scholar — that because the head of the executive branch determined that it was appropriate to do, that that meant for purposes of those in the executive branch it was legal.

I disagreed with that conclusion. Our legal analysis was that we couldn’t find an adequate legal basis for aspects of this matter. And for that reason, I couldn’t certify it to its legality.

Comey’s a pretty conservative lawyer. Even still, he obviously struggled seriously to figure out whether, if the President said something that had no basis in law was legal, it was legal, or not.

You might think that’s the kind of challenging legal assessment Attorney General Mukasey is doing, preparing (as he surely is) to deliver the immunity the FISA capitulation will give the telecoms within the next week.

But you’d be wrong. As a reminder, here’s what the immunity language in the FISA capitulation says.

[A] civil action may not lie or be maintained in a Federal or State court against any person for providing assistance to an element of the intelligence community, and shall be properly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the district court of the United States in which such action is pending that


(4) the assistance alleged to have been provided by the electronic communication service provider was —

(A) in connection with intelligence activity involving communications that was (i) authorized by the President during the period beginning on September 11, 2001, and ending on January 17, 2007 and (ii) designed to prevent or detect a terrorist attack, or activities in preparation of a terrorist attack, against the United States" and

(B) the subject of a written request or directive, or a series of written requests or directives, from the Attorney General or the head of an element of the intelligence community (or the deputy of such person) to the electronic communication service provider indicating that the activity was (i) authorized by the President; and (ii) determined to be lawful.

Look at the language carefully. It doesn’t say, "Michael Mukasey, a conservative and complicit–but still a once-respectable–lawyer, must review the program and certify that the program was legal." Rather, it says that, for the telecoms to receive their immunity, the Attorney General (Mukasey) only has to certify that at the time the Administration requested the telecoms’ assistance, they were told, in writing, that the program was "(i) authorized by the President, and (ii) determined to be lawful." There’s no "determining to be lawful" going on now. There’s simply the assertion, on a piece of paper, that someone–they don’t even have to say a lawyer did the determining!!!–someone determined the program to be lawful. It could have been Jenna Bush, on a bender, "determining the program to be legal." So long as she could manage to put pen to paper to certify as such–that’s the only standard the FISA capitulation requires!! Me, you, my dog McCaffrey–anyone of us could determine the program to be legal; had we done so, and told the telecoms as much, they go scot free.

And, in fact, it’s almost that bad. We know, after all, that on one of the certifications, someone almost as incompetent as Jenna on a bender (though not quite as competent as my dog McCaffrey) "determined the program to be lawful." Read more